Rome: Wildfires have so far burned more than 600 square kilometers (60,000 hectares) of land in Italy, more than in all of 2022, Coldiretti, the country’s main agricultural association said on Friday.
It said that the past two unusually dry and hot summers have left water levels in rivers and lakes low, contributing to dry conditions in wooded areas. The areas impacted most by the fires are the islands of Sicily and Sardinia, but other parts of southern Italy also experienced uncontrolled blazes. Most recently, fires torched the eastern part of the Tuscan island of Elba.
The total area impacted by fires is more than three times the size of the city of Milan in northern Italy.
Even though the summer of 2022 was affected by drought and heatwaves, the weather this year has been even more extreme with record high temperatures in many parts of the country. The back-to-back heatwaves have also had a cumulative effect, leaving forests more vulnerable.
Police are reportedly conducting multiple investigations into possible arson in some cases of the wildfires, especially those in Sicily and Sardinia. A seven-meter-tall wooden statue called the Dragon of Vaia in Trentino, northern Italy, was burnt earlier this week and media reports indicate that police are “almost certain” arson was the case.
On Friday, authorities in Greece said they had arrested 79 people on suspicion of arson in connection with recent fires in that country. In Italy, no arrests have been made so far.
Coldiretti said that in addition to the land lost to fires, the extreme weather events (windstorms, hail, and floods) that have occurred this summer in Italy have had other far-reaching impacts: grape production is expected to be 14 percent below last year’s already reduced harvest. The country’s pears yields are expected to decrease by 63 percent, milk production is estimated to be reduced by 20 percent, and wheat production to shrink by 10 percent.
Earlier in August, Coldiretti estimated that the damage to the agricultural sector in Italy so far this year would top 6 billion euros (6.5 billion U.S. dollars).
In a statement released on Thursday, the group said that part of the fruit produced is unsellable, and that the damage to fruit trees and vegetable production is likely to reduce next year’s harvests even if the weather is less extreme in 2024, since the plants will be in a recovery phase.
According to meteorologists, the hot and dry weather is expected to be pushed away by a cold front moving in from northern Italy. It should reduce temperatures and produce rainfall in much of Italy starting Sunday or Monday. But while the precipitation would likely eliminate the risk of more wildfires, Coldiretti said it would not resolve the medium-term problems caused by the drought and heatwaves.
“Heavy thunderstorms and violent rainfall only aggravate the situation,” the group said in a statement. “They cause mudslides and the dry soil is not able to absorb the excess water.” The group said the water-related issues would be resolved only if rainfall was “continuous and moderate.”